“The formation of this center in the West with King Abdullah’s support gives a strong message that Islam is a religion of dialogue and understanding and not a religion of enmity, fanaticism and violence,” the International Islamic News Agency quoted Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais as saying.
Sudais was reacting to the launch Monday of the new King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in the Austrian capital, Vienna.
Lending international legitimacy to the Saudi king’s latest religious tolerance initiative, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was among those who attended the opening.
In his remarks, Ban asserted that too many religious leaders have “stoked intolerance, supported extremism and propagated hate” rather than tolerance, adding, “We must all do better in reaching out across boundaries.”
“Islamophobia leads to hate crimes and as such, it generates fear, feelings of stigmatization, marginalization, alienation and rejection,” said Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
“The net result is heightened anxiety and rising violence. Islamophobia is also an assault on people’s identity and their human dignity.”
According to an OIC statement on his address, Ihsanoglu proposed actions to remedy the situation:
“[T]he West must define hate crimes broadly and address the information deficit as well as enact adequate legislation and implement this legislation effectively. In conjunction with national legislation, they should also implement international commitments and agreed norms.”
The OIC has set up an “observatory” to monitor Islamophobia, which it also defines as a contemporary form or racism.
The observatory’s most recent annual report, released this month, covers incidents including Qur’an burning in Afghanistan and Florida, and the U.S. House Homeland Committee’s hearings on radicalization in the American Muslim community, and the notorious YouTube video denigrating Mohammed.
‘Freedom of religion severely restricted in practice’
The opening of the KAICIID has not been without controversy in Austria, where some have questioned the appropriateness of a religious tolerance initiative being funded by a regime that prohibits churches. One liberal Muslim group in Austria said the center would be used to spread the kingdom’s Wahhabi brand of Islam.
Proponents argue, however, that the way the center has been set up will make it impossible for Saudi Arabia, or anyone else, to dictate the agenda.
It has been formally established by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain as an international body, and its decision-making body is a board that must comprise of three Muslims, three Christians, one Jew, one Hindu and one Buddhist.
The current board is made up of two Sunnis – a Saudi and a Lebanese – an Iranian Shi’ite, a Roman Catholic, an Anglican, a Greek Orthodox representative, a Jerusalem-based rabbi, an Indian Hindu and a Japanese Buddhist.
Board members are appointed by the parties to the project – Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain – in consultation with religious denominations.
“We hope for the center to have an effective impact to bring people together in order to resolve crises through peaceful ways,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at the opening.
The center is the latest in a series of interfaith initiatives by King Abdullah, who met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. In 2008 he convened a gathering of Sunni and Shi’ite leaders in Mecca, then held meetings involving representatives of all major faiths, first in Madrid and then on the sidelines of the U.N. in New York.
Religious attitudes remain rigid in the kingdom, however.
“Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice,” the State Department’s most recent report on international religious freedom noted with regard to Saudi Arabia. “The public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited, and there is no separation between state and religion.”
Churches are not allowed in the kingdom, and earlier this year the senior Saudi cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, said those churches that exist in neighboring Gulf states should be destroyed.
Sudais, the imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca who said Monday the KAICIID would be “a good medium to spread the message of Islam,” has a history of provocative statements about followers of other faiths.
In an April 2002 sermon he said Jews had been cursed by Allah, and called them “monkeys and pigs.” He has also called Jews “rats of the world” and derided Christians as “cross worshippers” and “those influenced by the rottenness of their ideas.”
When a senior Saudi official – now ambassador to the U.S. – Adel al-Jubeir, was interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2003, he acknowledged that Sudais had made the comments about Jews, saying he had been reprimanded.
“I think if he had a choice he would retract these words – he would not have said these words,” Jubeir said. “It’s clearly not right.”